Ai eyes Oakmont
As Ai Miyazato walked toward the perilous green on the last hole at Oakmont Country Club on Wednesday, her father retreated to the shade near the grandstand in hopes of cooling off.
Amid the unrelenting, sweltering heat, Miyazato barely broke a sweat in preparing for the 65th U.S. Women's Open, which begins today. She fanned her father with a towel before taking the short walk to the practice green to fine-tune a game that has yielded an LPGA Tour-best four victories this year.
"I feel good right now, and I feel my putting is good, too," Miyazato said. "With my father, there's really nothing specific that we're working on, but we talked a lot about course management."
The Japanese standout, who had an abbreviated stint at No. 1 before Cristie Kerr dethroned her at the LPGA Championship nearly two weeks ago, doesn't appear to be affected much by the 90-plus degree heat that forced some in the 156-player field to abandon practice rounds early the past two days.
A focused and determined Miyazato enters the opening round of the season's third major championship seemingly detached from the grueling challenge that awaits her at storied Oakmont — a feared venue that generates stage fright even from those who have conquered the mercurial greens and deep, wiry rough of an Open.
"It's certainly one of the most penalizing (golf courses) if you miss the fairways," said Kerr, the 2007 champion. "The fairways are hittable, but you can see why the scores have been what they have for champions to win here over the years."
With her distance and accuracy off the tee, Miyazato isn't likely to drop Oakmont to its knees. However, she can put herself in position to be among the last ones standing during the final round Sunday.
Miyazato insisted she won't rely solely on her power game. She hopes to avoid the sometimes-inevitable mind games that can thwart major championship aspirations.
"I feel more used to the U.S. Open atmosphere, especially this being the sixth time playing," said Miyazato, who with a win could potentially reclaim the top spot in the world rankings. "Obviously, I feel comfortable with all the experience that I've had so far playing. In terms of playing the tournament this year, I don't feel like I can really relax out there at all."
When Miyazato shot a 6-under-par 66 in the final round of the LPGA Championship at Locust Hill Country Club in Pittsford, N.Y., it helped erase perhaps her shakiest stretch this season. Until that round, she appeared tentative and impatient.
"It will be patience, and I think I need to change my (strategy)," said Miyazato, whose 7:33 a.m. threesome includes 2009 Open runner-up Candie Kung. "It's not going to be making birdies like every hole. It's just trying to make par or maybe bogey or something like that."
Like everyone else, Miyazato concedes Oakmont is like nothing she has encountered. Even at 5-foot-2, she is among the longest drivers on tour, but she spent part of her three practice rounds firing at pins on some of the lengthy par 4s with long irons and fairway woods.
The greens have gotten Miyazato's attention. Strategically, she has been caught between clubs — even in the thick rough surrounding the greens.
"I feel the greens are very difficult — the undulation as well as the speed," she said. "Those two combinations I've never really experienced before. And depending on the pin placement, I really need to be careful where I hit my second shots. Like No. 10, it's kind of wide open in front of the green. I putted, but it's breaking like forever.
"I think I'm going to chip some holes. It depends on the pin position. So, putting will be one of my options instead of just chipping (from the fringe)."
Miyazato, who won the first two tournaments of the year, finished third at the LPGA Championship before skipping the Jamie Farr Corning Classic last weekend. Still, she was hard at work at Big Canyon Country Club in Newport News, Calif., preparing for the Open.
That hard work drew praise from her chief rival.
"Everybody knew she was going to be great," Kerr said. "It's great to have rivals on the course, but at the end of the day, it's really about sportsmanship. She has a cute personality, like a little cartoon character — like a superhero in Japan."
Miyazato knows it'll take a heroic effort to conquer Oakmont. Somehow, she doesn't appear to be sweating it.
Ai Miyazato has won four LPGA Tour events this season, and she's one of the favorites to win the U.S. Women's Open this week at Oakmont Country Club. A list of her accomplishments:
• Best U.S. Women's Open finish: T-6 in 2009
• Years as tour professional: 5
• Career LPGA wins: 5
• International wins: 15
• Rolex world ranking: 2
• 2010 wins: 4
• 2010 top 10s: 5
• 2010 earnings: $963,909.75
• Greens in regulation: .599 (114)
• Putts per green: 1.76 (T-13)
• Driving average: 242.5 (98)
• Driving accuracy: .766 (T-14)
• Career earnings: $4,244,192